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IS THE NEW BIRMINGHAM A LOAD OF BULL?

01-11-2006

Like Rip Van Winkle with a Brummie accent Laurence Inman finally wakes up to the fact that the city centre has changed a bit. Yeah, but what does he make of it?

After three years it's time to make up my mind about the new Bull Ring.

It's a great disappointment.

I was expecting to get a really good moan out of it, one lasting at least two decades. After all, I hadn't really finished moaning about the previous one. Mind you, any amateur could have got years of moaning out of that disgusting pile of misshapen rubbish. (Can you even bear to think about that flyover cutting off the view of St Martin's ? And the tunnels with their intriguing nuances of shadow and stark blackness! The charming corners where litter could swirl and settle for months!)

I'm old enough to remember the proper Bull Ring, unchanged since the present St Martin's was built in 1875. Ah, the proper Bull Ring, with proper soot everywhere, three inches thick, proper grown-up Brummie moaning and proper diseases like Diphtheria and Cholera!

But no. This new one is superb.

Obviously, there's a bit of scope for short-term griping, stuff that would suit someone at the beginning of his career in moaning. That bleeding bull statue, for instance; straight out of a Disney cartoon. And of course, the whole enterprise is a carefully constructed bunko-booth to tempt you into a lifetime of penury and debt.

But apart from that, three things make any visit a genuinely sensual pleasure.

First, the view of St Martin's from High Street has been restored and even enhanced. Whoever arranged this has understood a basic fact about buildings: what surrounds them and how they are approached and seen are just as important as any intrinsic architectural value they may have.

The morons who put up that filthy mess in front of the Oratory and destroyed many of the best views of St Chad's (only Pugin's masterpiece and the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation!) must have been playing snooker when they did that lesson at Architecture school.

Second, Selfridges!

What can you say ? Moaning is pointless. You can't say, ‘It doesn't look like a shop!' It doesn't even look like a building! It defies nicknaming, have you noticed that ? Thank you, thank you, lovely Amanda Levete of Future Systems. You have created something truly inimitable, something which says of our place: How about this for breaking the rules?

And finally, Lord Nelson.

There he stands, a proud flourish of bronze, almost back in his original position, (but minus his lamp standards and sculptured reliefs round the plinth.)

This was the first public statue to be erected in Birmingham. When news of Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar reached home in 1805 a wave of grief swept the country. He was almost universally loved in his lifetime and his death, at only forty-seven, was a thunderbolt.

His funeral brought London to a standstill. In Birmingham, ordinary people raised £2,500 to pay one of the best artists in the country, Sir Richard Westmacott R.A. (who also made the Wellington Monument, the reliefs on the north side of Marble Arch and many other statues of the good and worthy all over London) to create this masterpiece.

It was unveiled on October 25th 1809, which makes it the oldest memorial to Nelson in the world, predating the one they've got somewhere in London by quite a few years. And you can actually see ours without using a telescope.

When the Great Vandalism took place, he was taken away and then put back in an out-of-the-way corner at the end of a walkway. Some younger Brummies, therefore, may never have known of his existence until he was finally put back in 2003.

Have a good look at him the next time you're in town. Honestly, you don't have to be weird to fall in love with a statue. I know that from my experiences with the Iron Man. Gaze in wonder at the way his cloak balances that stylised (surreal, even) ship. Look into his eyes. He is the true Romantic hero, brought into the world at the height of that brilliant movement in philosophy and the arts.

Then go to the library and read about him. Find out why he is still revered by sailors everywhere. And if you hear anyone dismiss him as a blind agent of imperialist expansion and oppression you can say, ‘No, he was only half blind.'

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